Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The American retreat from Afghanistan will have consequences quite different from those faced by Russia in 1988, which in turn, were different to what Britain had to deal with in 1842. Likewise, the worldly-wise Taliban of today will not be similar to the earlier generation led by the messianic Mullah Omar. That said, it is more difficult to forecast how the future will unfold in the region.
India’s effort to develop alternative means of access to the country through the Chabahar port means little now. The prudent course would be to cut our losses and wait.
Managing a retreat is considered one of the most complex operations of war. What we have had to witness, in the case of the Americans and the Afghan government, is more rout than a retreat, for which President Biden, his predecessor Trump and their Afghan counterpart Abdul Ghani are responsible.
Things could have been better managed since it’s been clear since 2014 that the US was done with the war. In February 2020, they made an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from the country in 14 months in exchange for their nebulous commitment to a peace process. As the US got into departure mode reducing its forces and dismantling its bases, the Taliban stepped up operations against the Afghan army. Despite that, the Biden administration stuck to the deal and made an abrupt departure from the principal American base at Bagram in the middle of the night on July 5.
As Frederick W Kagan has observed, the fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal, with the Taliban retreating to their bases in winter. By withdrawing suddenly at the peak of summer, when the Taliban were out in full force, the US action enabled them to rapidly capture the cities one by one.
The core of the success of the new Taliban has been the ability to combine diplomacy with their military prowess. Even as their forces were positioning themselves to capture the cities, Taliban delegations were fanning out to reassure neighbours and prevent the emergence of any new counter-force.
Within days of the US departure from Bagram, a delegation was in Moscow to offer assurances that their gains on the ground would not translate into threats against the Russians or their Central Asian allies. A few days later, another delegation was in Ashgabat to reassure Turkmenistan. In early July, the Taliban participated in an Iranian-led exercise to hold talks with the Afghan government delegations to promote a peaceful settlement.
Tehran had long been supporting the anti-American Taliban with money and weapons. In 2015, a high-ranking Taliban delegation had visited Iran to discuss ‘regional issues’, and in January this year, a delegation had again visited Tehran.
China, too, has maintained ties with the Taliban for some time now. It has been concerned about the threats that could emerge from a US-dominated Afghanistan, or from a resurgent Taliban. Last month, its foreign minister Wang Yi held a widely publicised meeting with a Taliban delegation in Tianjin.
And then there is Pakistan. Islamabad believes that it has the Taliban by their ‘tooti’ (scruff of the neck), a term once used by Pakistan’s Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz, during the time of the Kargil operations. Pakistan provided the Taliban financial resources, training, weapons, logistical support and, most important, a safe haven to fight the government and the US forces in Afghanistan. It has also been part of the ‘Great Game’ against India. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will eliminate Indian threat through Afghanistan.
But history doesn’t repeat itself. The Taliban of today are not the naïve Talibs that the Pakistanis created under the leadership of Mullah Omar. This generation are seasoned militants who have sometimes experienced jail and ill-treatment at the hands of the Pakistanis. Islamabad hopes that its control over the Taliban logistics will continue to provide it leverage, as will the presence of its powerful proxy—the Haqqani Network which has been absorbed into the Taliban over the past two decades. But the rapid consolidation of authority over Afghanistan by the Taliban and their outreach to Iran is likely to have upset those calculations.
Without doubt, India is a loser in these developments. It was kept out of the peace process by both the US and the Russians. We had, in any case, functioned there under the American military umbrella. Our effort to develop alternative means of access to the country through the Chabahar port means little now. The prudent course would be to cut our losses and wait.
The biggest loser in all this, besides the poor Afghan people, is the US, which must reflect on its inability to successfully see through wars, despite its enormous military capability. This has implications for its west European and East Asian allies, as well as the Arabs, who depend on the US military to protect themselves.
The Kabul fiasco will undoubtedly affect the US ability to mobilise coalitions against a common cause. With a hostile Iran and Afghanistan, the newly proposed US quadrilateral in Central Asia is a non-starter.
As the ‘Great Game II’ ends, the ‘Great Game III’ will begin. The new Taliban has a much wider regional perspective than its predecessor. They are jihadists and will continue to support Islamist causes. The Iranians and Russians have their own sense of history. The Americans are unlikely to forgo the ability to intervene in such a key region at some future date. But for that you need an America that can learn the right lessons, overcome domestic divisions and avoid the perils of groupthink that afflict large parts of Washington.
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